Dispatch New Mexico - Small-town theaters struggle to keep up with digital filmmaking

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By Tom McDonald

Most small-town county seats have them — once attractive single-screen movie theaters, with a 35mm projector room in the balcony and a neon-lighted marquee outside. Once upon a time they were entertainment centerpieces in their communities, and in some instances they still are.

A lot of them are long gone, having succumbed to competition from multiplexes and home entertainment centers.

Others, however, have held on and continue to show first-run movies to small-town audiences fortunate enough to still have a local theater.

But thanks to the digital age — and the moviemaking industry — this little piece of Americana is about to disappear altogether for a lot of small towns.

About a decade ago, studios began using digital technology to make their films. Not only are the picture and sound better, digital copies are also a lot cheaper to make than 35mm film. Not surprisingly, when the change came, the deep-pocketed multiplexes bought in immediately.

Not so for the smaller community theaters, which found it too costly to convert. Instead, they held on to their 35mm operations — and managed to survive that way by purchasing the first-run movies as 35mm films.

But now the moviemaking industry is cutting the legs out from under these theaters by ceasing the production of 35mm film. For the theaters that can’t afford to go digital, it’s time to put up or shut down.

In my Las Vegas hometown here in New Mexico, our one remaining downtown theater, the Kiva, closed its doors a few weeks ago. And to make matters worse, on the outskirts of town the Fort Union Drive-in — one of only two remaining drive-in theaters in the state — may not be able to open for its upcoming summer season. Jeanna DiLucchio, the drive-in’s owner, says she needs at least $60,000 to convert to digital, and she doesn’t have it.

Maybe such closings are inevitable. Movie theaters, after all, are in a competitive business environment, where survival goes to the fittest. But it’s still sad to see.

Still, it’s more than just sad. The demise of small-town movie theaters is also tough on their downtown retail districts, which are struggling to remain viable in the age of big-box retailers.

Movie theaters are important for the downtowns in which they stand. Those neon lights can bring small-town business districts to life, alongside storefronts that need to look alive. Often times, the theater is an anchor for the rest of Main Street.

Some towns are finding other uses for these theaters. Over the past few months, newspapers in Clayton, Silver City, Lovington and elsewhere have reported on efforts to fix up their old theaters — in some cases with public money, other times with fund-raisers. Often the theater facility is converted for theatrical use, for a community theatre troupe, or for other social occasions.

Moreover, some of these old theaters find other incarnations. In Roswell, one downtown theater was turned into a UFO museum, which probably makes more money than any old movie house would — especially in Roswell, where two multiplex theaters thrive.

But some towns are still trying to save the movie house itself.

Here in Las Vegas, a college town lacking in entertainment venues for its student population, there’s talk of reopening the Kiva, but I don’t know if such talk is based on reality or just wishful thinking.

As for the drive-in, DiLucchio told me an effort is under way to raise money on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, so she can buy a digital projector. There aren’t too many drive-in theaters left and it would be a crying shame if Carlsbad becomes the only town in New Mexico to have a still-operating drive-in theater.

Meanwhile, as small-town theaters go out of business all over the country, localized campaigns to save them are taking place. It’s a daunting but not impossible task: If they can buy a digital protector, then pay for its maintenance and upkeep, perhaps they can make it. Or maybe they can stay afloat by reverting to showing vintage 35mm movies— something that draws even smaller audiences and makes even less money. But it’s not likely even the fittest will survive that way.

It’s too bad that the movie industry has drawn such a hard line in the sand. I’ve read about how some companies are offering generous financing packages to help theaters afford the new digital projectors, but paying back any kind of loan would be tough for a theater that doesn’t typically have high-volume ticket sales — and that’s just about every small-town theater out there.

I hope these theater owners and their supporters can think of something. Downtown retail establishments are already a threatened species in small towns; take away one of their most attractive features and extinction might just be around the corner.

Tom McDonald is the former publisher of the Optic and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He may be reached at 505-454-9131 or tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.